I pulled from the bookcase a guide to Pacific Coast ecology…. As I sat there, my eye began to travel the margins of the book, along the names and habitats of creatures and plants of the 4,000-mile Pacific coastline of North America…. I found myself pulled by names: Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, Fingered Limpet, Hooded Puncturella, Veiled Chiton, Bat Star, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, Eye Fringed Worm, Sugar Wrack, Frilled Anemone, Bull Kelp, Ghost Shrimp, Sanderling, Walleye Surfperch, Volcano Barnacle, Stiff-footed Sea Cucumber, Leather Star, Innkeeper Worm, Lug Worm. And I felt the names drawing me into a state of piercing awareness, a state I associate with reading and writing poems. These names – by whom given and agreed on? – these names work as poetry works, enlivening a sensuous reality through recognition or through the play of sounds (the short i’s of Fingered Limpet, the open vowels of Bull Kelp, Hooded Puncturella, Bat Star); the poising of heterogeneous images (volcano and barnacle, leather and star, sugar and wrack) to evoke other worlds of meaning. Sugar wrack: a foundered ship in the Triangle Trade? Volcano Barnacle: tiny unnoticed undergrowth with explosive potential? Who saw the bird named Sanderling and gave it that caressive, diminutive name?... These names work as poetry works in another sense as well: they make something unforgettable. You will remember the pictorial names as you won’t the Latin… Human eyes gazed at each of all these forms of life and saw resemblance in difference – the core of metaphor, that which lies close to the core of poetry itself, the only hope for a humane civil life. The eye for likeness in the midst of contrast, the appeal to recognition, the association of thing to thing, spiritual fact with embodied form, begins here. And so begins the suggestion of multiple, many-layered, rather than singular, meanings, wherever we look, in the ordinary world.
I began to think about the names, beginning with the sound and image delivered by the name “Great Blue Heron,” as tokens of a time when meaning was poetry, when connections between things and living beings, or living things and human beings, were instinctively apprehended. By “a time” I don’t mean any one historical or linguistic moment or period, I mean all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses.
This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities – poetry, science, politics – triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives.